These horrific war crimes reveal a humanity that isn’t good or bad, but absolutely sadistic.
Human nature is an amorphous thing: Optimists and pessimists can look at the same human history and present diametrically opposed assessments of the human spirit.
The optimist will point to acts of selflessness and historical displays of a collective will toward waging progress in making their case that human nature is essentially “good.”
The pessimist will present ceaseless wars, slavery, and a host of other social ills peppering human history to construct a human nature that is more savage than humane.
Both are correct in their evaluations of the human condition. But it is acts of particularly relentless, unfettered violence that shock both the optimist and pessimist. These acts present not a humankind that is basically good, bad, or a little bit of both, but one that is absolutely sadistic.
Here are four of those very acts — and ones which may make Memorial Day assume a darker meaning:
T4 Euthanasia Program
In August 1939, healthcare providers throughout Germany received a missive from the Reich Ministry of the Interior. The note stipulated that all physicians, nurses, and midwives report newborn infants (under the age of three) who appeared to suffer from severe mental or physical disabilities.
Two months later, in October, these health experts started suggesting that parents send disabled children to certain pediatric clinics in Germany and Austria for treatment. The catch was that children sent to these clinics would not be helped; they would be killed.
This program — started by Adolf Hitler and which eventually comprised the near totality of Germany’s psychiatric community — was called the T4 program, coming from the address of the enterprise: Tiergartenstrasse 4.
T4 essentially created a “death panel”: A bureaucracy of physicians was charged with deciding who had a “life unworthy of life,” and who did not. To make such a decision, T4 planners distributed surveys to public health officials, hospitals, institutions, and elderly homes, placing particular emphasis on establishing the patient’s ability to work.
Nazi emphasis on productivity shaped much of their justification for euthanasia. Indeed, they argued that funds could “better” be used on those who were not insane or suffering from a terminal illness — and that those who did led “burdensome lives” or were “useless eaters” were fit only to die.
And that they did. Patients were shipped off to these “clinics,” where they entered “shower facilities” that were actually gas chambers. Dead bodies were disposed of in ovens. Their ashes were placed in urns and sent back to their families, along with a falsified account of their death.
The T4 program — which “officially” ended in 1941 and which the U.S. Holocaust Museum estimates killed at least 5,000 physically and mentally disabled German children — was a chilling vision of things to come. It was Germany’s first mass killing program, preceding the extermination camps that took shape some years later.
Worst War Crimes: Unit 731
Between 1937 and 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army conducted lethal human experimentation in northeast China, predominantly on Chinese and Russian populations.
The group conducting the experiments was known as Unit 731, and while it eventually comprised 3,000 researchers, it started with one man: Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro.
Shiro hoped to use his knowledge of science to help make Japan a global power. When the government took an interest in biological weapons following the 1925 Geneva Protocol ban on germ warfare — coupled with Japan’s acquisition of Manchuria, which made for a high supply of “test subjects” — Shiro set up shop and started conducting his deadly science/war crimes.
Officially, the tests were conducted to “develop new treatments for medical problems that the Japanese Army faced,” the New York Times reported.
However, throughout the years, researchers vivisected prisoners (often without anesthesia); injected diseases such as syphilis, anthrax, and gonorrhea into victims; raped women to conduct experiments on their fetuses; used prisoners as human targets for grenades; and even burned people alive. Outside of the unit, the Japanese army dropped plague-carrying fleas onto Chinese villages to study how quickly the disease spread.
Subjects were called marutas, or logs, and according to The New York Times, they were generally Communist sympathizers or ordinary criminals. Over this time period, anywhere from 3,000 to 250,000 people died in a single camp. What is perhaps most disturbing is that these sorts of experiments were not isolated to Unit 731, and that many doctors simply considered these procedures routine.
In spite of this, many Unit 731 researchers never stood trial for war crimes. Instead, the United States, eager to beat the Soviet Union in the global arms race, granted them immunity on the condition that they give the U.S. the information they gathered when conducting their experiments. Two declassified government documents reveal that the U.S. eventually paid over $2.3 million (in today’s dollars) for that data.
As with Nazi experimentation, the U.S. would use the research gained via these war crimes to enhance their own biological warfare program.
The U.S. Civil War claimed over 620,000 lives and left a bloody stain on America’s history, and yet only one man involved was tried for war crimes. That man was Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of Andersonville, Georgia’s Camp Sumter, which housed Union prisoners of war.
Conditions at the camp, which was chronically understocked, were absolutely abysmal. Meant to house 10,000 inmates, at its 1864 peak 32,000 POWs resided within its cramped, rank walls, leaving inmates with only six square feet of “living space.”
Food was scarce, and the materials necessary to prepare it even scarcer, which left many prisoners to starve. On top of starvation, deplorable sanitation conditions at the camp led men to drink creek water filled with the fecal matter of diseased and dying men, sickening them with scurvy, dysentery, and diarrhea.
And if disease didn’t kill inmates, people inside the prison would. Several gangs, such as the Andersonville Raiders, arose in the 16-acre prison camp, and would attack (and murder) inmates for what little possessions they had. Looming above the camp grounds, poorly trained guards would shoot inmates indiscriminately and without cause.
Approximately 900 prisoners died at the camp each month, with over 12,000 people (a third of the camp’s overall population) dying between 1861 and 1865.
As for Wirz, later condemned to death for war crimes, he claimed he was just following orders.
Worst War Crimes: Congo Wars
An abundant supply of diamonds, gold, and copper can be found in the Congo — as well as blood. Toward the end of the 20th century, the nation descended into decades-long civil war, the harrowing history of which has been shaped by child soldiers, cannibalism, and especially mass rape.
The use of rape was so widespread and routine that the U.N. decided to consider rape to be an instrument, not a side effect, of war. Indeed, a 2011 study from the American Journal of Public Health found that up to 1.8 million women in the Congo have been raped, averaging out to around 48 women per hour.
Whether it’s meant to instill fear in local populations or encourage the abandonment of property and the collapse of domestic relations, rape as a military strategy in the Congo does not discriminate.
Women of all ages have been targets of these rapes; victims have been as young as 18 months old or as old as 80. In some instances, women’s genitalia are mutilated, with their families being forced to watch.
According to accounts on the ground, rape has become normalized. Wrote filmmaker Fiona Lloyd-Davies, who spent time in the Congo to make a film about rape there, “Women told me how they expected to be raped. Not once but many times. The women I met, spoke of gang rapes, three or four times. Sometimes it was ‘only’ two soldiers, more often gangs of men, 10, 20, over and over again.”
Apart from the physical scars such a traumatic experience leaves — disfiguring fistulas and STIs are common among rape victims in the Congo — the emotional trauma can be impossible to overcome.
Lloyd-Davies recounted meeting one woman, Masika Katsuva, who illustrated that point. Katsuva and her two daughters were raped by soldiers; her husband was murdered in front of her, and she was forced to eat his private parts. Later, when Katsuva attempted to seek refuge with her husband’s family, she and her daughters were rejected and had nowhere to go.
The war officially “ended” with a 2013 United Nations peace treaty, at which point over five million people had perished since the war began in the early 1990s.
One year later, 39 men were put on trial for at least 130 counts of rape in the township of Minova. Over 1000 victim participants joined the case, offering testimony. Five months later, only two men were convicted — for one individual rape each.